Podcast: 20th Century Dictators
December 1971 – East Pakistan ceded from its west wing and became Bangladesh under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. The newly independent Bangladesh looked forward to a new dawn under its new Prime Minister. But less than 4 years later, amid rising political agitation, post a catastrophic famine that killed a million and a half, Mujib declared a state of emergency and banned all political parties to initiate one party rule, in January 1975. Six months later, he and most of his family were assassinated by renegade army officers during a coup. A martial law government was subsequently established. Military dictators ruled Bangladesh for the next 16 years.
the history: Dictatorships – can be traced back to 510 B.C when the office of the Dictator was first created by the Roman Senate for emergency purposes, such as taking care of rebellions. During the time of the Republic, Rome was ruled by two consuls, and the Senate decided that in some cases it was necessary to have a single person making decisions. Sometimes, one of the consuls became dictator.
Dictators held authority over all other politicians, couldn’t be held legally responsible for their actions and couldn’t hold the office for longer than six months (although there were two exceptions to this rule). They could also change Roman law and the constitution, but they couldn’t use any public money other than what the Senate gave them, and they couldn’t leave Italy. Most dictators left office after they completed their tasks, even if their six months hadn’t yet elapsed.
the physics: How do Dictators come to power? One of the ways, as in our Bangladesh example, is the military toppling an inept regime. In certain parts of the world, the military looks upon itself as the ultimate protector of the nation. So when a democratic government begins to lose its hold on institutions due to ineptness or corruption, the military intervenes by toppling the regime via a coup. Pakistan and Bangladesh have been great examples of this scenario.
Kim Il-sung rebelled against Japan’s rule of Korea in the 1930s, which led to his exile in the Soviet Union. Korea was divided after Japan’s defeat in World War II and Kim came to lead the Soviet-backed North Korea. Backed by the Communist nations of the Soviet Union and China, Kim declared war on South Korea, claiming jurisdiction over the entire Korean peninsula. However, the United States came to the aid of Korea and this led to the armistice and cessation of hostilities in 1953. The Kim family members have been supreme leaders of North Korea since.
The Kim family follows a model of dynastic civilian dictatorship – a modern monarchy. It starts with the first member of the family getting installed at the helm by an external super power. The regime pushes an ideology – nationalism with a xenophobic, even racist, slant. Anti-Japanese sentiment, hostility to South Korea, and propaganda against the United States create legitimacy for the regime. As the regime inculcates its ideology and cult of personality, it strives for tighter controls on information, to prevent mass organization. The key to longevity is a strong rapport with a powerful ally who helps keep the economy alive and quell rebellion via a strong intelligence network
Perhaps most important, the North Korean regime is brutal in its use of force. Dissent is detected through an elaborate network of informants working for multiple internal security agencies. People accused of relatively minor offenses undergo “reeducation”; those accused of more serious transgressions are either immediately executed or interred in miserable political prison camps. Even more daunting, according to the “three generations” policy, the regime punishes not only the individual responsible for the transgressions but his or her whole family.
.Among dictatorships, China has swung from absolute authoritarianism to a collaborative junta and back to an absolute dictatorship under Xi Jinping. When Chairman Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution in the summer of 1966, he was the absolute ruler – above any constitutional oversight, and bereft of any judiciary to be answerable to. After stamping his authority over China for a decade, his successor Deng Xiaoping implemented a host of economic and social reforms and China evolved into a market economy dictatorship – the power was still centralized in one individual, but trade and industry were open and allowed to flourish. Deng Xiaoping though, made one important change – establishment of term limits on the President in 1982 – six years after Mao’s death. Deng wanted to stay away from the cult of personality that Mao had indulged in. Subsequently, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao held the leadership position between 1992 and 2012, following the ten-year Presidential term limit between them. During this time, the leadership was more distributed and collaborative. China had gone from being ruled by strongmen with personal credibility to leaders who were constrained by collective decision-making, term limits and other norms.
However, Xi Jingping reverted the Presidential term limit and established himself as President for life – smart move to ensure self-preservation. But will it work? Read: Xi-jinping-from-president-to-china-new-dictator
In my opinion it won’t, for two primary reasons – Xi lacks the cult personality that Mao possessed and promoted and in the era of economic boom, prosperity and social media (though suppressed in China), people have lot more reasons to denounce authoritarianism. The more absolute the authority, the more people will resist. The previous model would’ve sustained a little longer, though would’ve eventually collapsed. So will we see another Tiananmen Square style mass protest soon? It is a possibility since In China, there is another class that is rising – the creators of wealth and that has caused tensions between the rulers and the capitalists. So money could finally decide the center of power in China – things to look out for, in the near future.
And then we come to the most dangerous form of dictatorship – the democratically elected dictator, Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe fall in this category. Incidentally, the most dangerous of ‘em all – Adolph Hitler too, was democratically elected.
Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933 after he ended a close second to the 84 year old Paul von Hindenburg in the nation’s Presidential elections. Following a suspicious fire in the German Reichstag, Hitler convinced President Hindenburg to pass an emergency law curbing personal liberties. This allowed Hitler to imprison the opposition leaders, giving him enough votes in the legislature to pass the Enabling Act – the law that gave Hitler the right to make laws without the legislature’s approval for the next four years! The rest is history. Read: Nazi control and dictatorship 1933-39
And that is the primary reason, dictatorships that are born out of democracies are most dangerous – the democratic institutions of legislature and judiciary continue to exist side-by-side with the Executive, but they are completely in control of the Executive. The Executive uses these institutions to manipulate the constitution to facilitate their re-election. Elections continue to be held, but the opposition is either behind bars or has been selectively eliminated. And since the leaders are democratically elected, they claim a mandate for their actions, essentially undermining democratic institutions.
It takes a while for the people to realize that they are in a dictatorship. And the primary reason it takes a while, is curtailment of the press. Press Freedom is the first casualty in a new dictatorship. When Indira Gandhi enforced Emergency upon India in 1975, printing presses of several newspapers across the country were raided over the next two days, resulting in the newspapers going out of circulation
The driving force behind dictatorship, is the lure of power and to hold on to it permanently. While military dictatorships face immediate opposition because of the nature of the power grab, the democratically elected dictators are able to use the set up to their advantage and last lot longer. In the era of social media, the ability for citizens to organize has increased significantly – this was most reflective in the Arab Spring of late 2010, which led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. No population will allow itself to be subjugated, but organization is key to getting its voice heard and information, notably social media censorship creates a huge barrier towards organization. This is one of the primary reasons for the survival of the Kim civilian monarchy in North Korea.
A bright silver lining in the cloud of suppressive regimes recently emerged in the case of Sudan. After 30 years of dictatorship under President Omar Hassan-al-Bashir and a month of brutal violence against pro-democracy protestors, back-room negotiations led to a power sharing agreement between the military and civilian leaders, till elections are held in three years. The key here was that diplomats from the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates convened Sudan’s military and protest leaders to come to the table to negotiate. Saudi Arabia and UAE had previously been pro military regime in Sudan, but the military led June 3 massacre in which at least 128 people were killed, induced a change in thinking and led by the US and Britain, Saudi Arabia and UAE put pressure on the military to initiate a dialog. Read: Power sharing deal in Sudan
If regimes that support dictatorships were to withdraw support, the transition to democracy would be lot easier. But in several cases like North Korea, the regime supporting the dictator is itself a dictatorship. So the transition is going to be long and hard, but there will be transition. By nature humans are pro-independence and freedom, but rulers tend to prefer absolute power. And in the struggle between the two, the citizens are bound to win, based on sheer numbers.
Listen: How Myanmar got here